So I got rear-ended yesterday. An ironic first sentence given the title of this article, I am aware, but, hey, the doctors I’ve been dealing with haven’t exactly gone out of their way to make me feel particularly comfortable so it only seems fitting that we linguistically jump right in with something equally cringeworthy.
I was driving along a busy road around noon when the driver behind me took his eyes off the road and slam! I felt fine, initially, but a couple hours after the impact, my back and neck began to tighten, and I suddenly had difficulty turning my head and opening my jaw. At the advice of my mother (a medical professional for over 30 years), I took myself to the ER to get checked out.
After waiting nearly 3 hours, I was finally able to see the doctor. I should have known things were off to a bad start when he told me to lie down and “play princess” while he examined me. An odd way to talk to a grown woman, but I brushed it aside. I told him my symptoms, and after poking around my back for a bit, he told me nothing seemed broken and that the cause of my visit was likely “anxiety or depression” resulting from the accident. Yes, I clearly chose to lose three hours of my day in the waiting room, as well as money I don’t have in order to come to this congested ER because I am sad and need someone to hug me.
I ignored his assumption and expressed concern that my ailments might worsen in the coming days, as is typical of whiplash or a potential fracture, and asked what to do. He went on to explain to my fragile, feeble-minded, lady self that my thinking like that was “similar to buying a wedding dress when you don’t even have a boyfriend.” I was stuck deciding whether to launch into a feminist rant on his obviously demeaning gender bias, his narrow-minded idea that all women are just dying to get married, or his completely ignoring the fact that MY SYMPTOMS WERE REAL. I decided on simply saying, “You sound very condescending.”
I told him that just because nothing “seemed broken” doesn’t mean that nothing was wrong. In fact, I knew a girl who, days later, had to return to the ER after a similar car accident because they told her to go home and, as it turned out, she had broken her back in seven places. He answered that these stories are just stories. “They are not reality.” Interesting, I thought, because her name was Andrea and she was my friend and a real person and she was very much a reality. I didn’t think my situation was nearly as severe, but my symptoms suggested that I at least be taken seriously. Why was this doctor so intent on gaslighting me? He told me I was a very healthy person, which was a veiled attempt to undercut my claim, but in essence should have actually proven my point. Yes, I am healthy. Yes, I have always been healthy. That is precisely how I am able to identify when I feel not healthy. I don’t make a habit of hanging out in emergency rooms.
His prescription? “Go home, clear your social calendar, and rest.” Right, because all the basket-weaving I’m doing with the other ladies in the field is clearly contributing to my hysteria. Pay no attention to the forceful jolt my body incurred a few hours prior. I left the hospital upset, but not without asking for the number of the department where I could file a complaint.
I was reminded of an incident a few years back in which I had a very bad burn on my arm. I went back to an urgent care near my apartment because I felt nauseous and was running a high fever and something just really seemed off because I never got sick. The doctor examined me and he concluded, “I’m sure, as a woman, you are very anxious that you are going to get a scar. Go home and eat some of your favorite foods and relax.” How does one “woman” themselves a fever? Does that just happen out of sheer vanity? A couple days later, I ended up hospitalized due to what turned out to be a by-the-book sulfa allergy—a drug contained in one of the antibiotics they had been giving me to prevent the burn from getting infected and something they should have caught, had they taken me seriously. But, hey, being a woman can cause similar symptoms, I guess!
A few months ago, I also dealt with a very misogynistic gyno…an odd job for someone who doesn’t really understand or appreciate women’s experiences, if you ask me. He flat out told me that, “sometimes patients make a big deal out of nothing.” Uh, no dude. When it comes to our vaginas, we know what’s up. Did you get your gynecological degree from the University of Afghanistan? I won’t go into too much detail here, but let’s just say I hope that one day someone rakes his scrotum with hot coals and then dismisses him as stressed out because he “looks healthy.” (Turns out, by the way, that I have a lot of allergies.)
So what’s going on here? Why are women’s medical ailments being minimized as “an exaggeration” or their reporting as being “overly dramatic”? Well, it unfortunately plays right into all the other areas of society in which we face similar obstacles. The easiest comparison to draw here is our well documented rape culture. (I add that it’s documented because women recently stood up and got loud about it many times over—not because the history books ever validated our experiences.) Any time a woman alleges that something is wrong or something uncouth happened, she is silenced because her experience does not seem to matter. There is no physical evidence or proof so it must be in her head. How frightening it is, then, to walk into an emergency room/urgent care/gynecologist’s office with actual physical symptoms of a problem and still be ignored.
The Internet is riddled with articles titled something to the effect of, “Women’s Health Issues That Doctors Miss.” That’s an awfully soft way of framing things. “Doctors Dismiss Women’s Symptoms, Thereby Failing To Uncover The Real Health Issue” would be more accurate. We seem to forget that Female Hysteria was a perfectly acceptable diagnosis for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that we stopped using those specific words, but the gender bias remains intact.
I use the example of my mother who was hospitalized with extreme dehydration and an inability to keep down solid foods. There was no obvious smoking gun and her doctor was convinced that she was just working herself up over recent life stressors. He called for a psych counsel. Some time later, my mom switched doctors and was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Her response? “I knew I wasn’t crazy.” I am also happy to report that the doctor who finally made the diagnosis was male. He would later sit next to her hospital bed for hours on end, making sure that she was okay.
Which brings me to my crucial next point: Male doctors are not misogynists by virtue of the fact that they are men. Not all men who are doctors behave this way. In fact, most of them do not. To think this way would be a catastrophic mistake and would feed into the false narrative that feminists hate men. I have been treated by highly thorough and compassionate male doctors for whom I possess the utmost respect, and my experience with them has been very good. After all, an epidemic is defined as a widespread occurrence, not an overarching blanket statement. What we are talking about here is that there are exactly as proportionate a number of misogynistic doctors as there are misogynistic people, and we need to be actively aware of it so that we can stand up for ourselves, our health, and our bodies the next time we are casually dismissed as “anxious” or “theatrical.”
In fact, misogyny, by definition, means an ingrained prejudice against women but it does not mean that this happens solely at the hands of men. While far less prevalent, there are some cases where female doctors aren’t exempt from this conversation, either—after all, what we’re really talking about is how society has normalized this treatment of female patients; it would be shortsighted to make it squarely a problem exacerbated by men. If this election season has taught us anything, it’s that misogyny is considered normal and excusable by a surprising amount of people.
So get loud. Stand up for yourself. Don’t accept sexist, hackneyed explanations for what’s ailing you. Oh, and while we’re on the topic, go vote in November.